THE SLEEP MAKER - SLEEPBUS.ORG

By: Fabian Cotter, Photography by: courtesy sleepbus.org, Video by: courtesy sleepbus.org


Each year in Australia, fluctuating fortunes have meant multiple thousands of people unfortunately are forced to sleep on the streets unsheltered every night, let alone have some place safe to stay for longer. If indeed ‘charity begins at home’, what if that home is actually a bus – a ‘sleepbus’, to be precise?

THE SLEEP MAKER - SLEEPBUS.ORG
“Sleep changes everything. Sleep plays a vital role in good health and wellbeing, and getting enough quality sleep can help protect a person’s mental health, physical health, and safety," says sleepbus.org

When a business or organisation’s mission statement is so impactful that it could better off used as a societal clarion call for a lost and wistful nation, arguably it is time to take note.

"Welcome to the family!" Spotswood, Melbourne-based Sleepbus – winner of the 2017 Telstra Victorian Charity of the Year award – starts its introduction to the masses.

"When people work together, their strengths magnify. Family bestows them with a collective power to withstand all kinds of hardship. This is why family is extremely important," it explains.

"Sleepbus is a non-profit organisation bringing safe overnight accommodation to people sleeping rough in Australia. Our accommodation is not a long-term solution; we don’t offer counselling, we don’t give money, we don’t provide the Ritz. What we do provide is a safe night’s sleep; we get people off the street," it succinctly explains.

"Sleepbus is distinct yet complementary to existing efforts from other organisations supporting Australians experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness. Our work aims to fill a ‘gap’ rather than overlap or replicate activities that support the urgent needs of people in Australia."

At the heart of the matter is its beautifully simplistic mantra, one that is often forgotten or taken for granted by many of the time-poor and rat-race-challenged among us these days: ‘Sleep changes everything.’

OPENER MAYBE Pink Bus Simon Harrison Tilly.jpeg

"Our mission [is] to bring safe overnight accommodation to people sleeping rough in Australia," it continues.

"Our vision [is] to end the need for people sleeping rough in Australia," and that: "Our family … will use its collective power to help people find pathways out of homelessness."

So what inspired Sleepbus founder and CEO Simon Rowe [spoiler alert: he and his family do much of the fabrication work on the buses themselves! Let’s just let that sink in for a moment] to start such a benevolent entity that offers dignity and grace each night for often dejected and despondent ‘guests’ whom have nowhere safe, clean, comfy and simply nice to sleep?

"In short, I found the tiredest man I had ever seen and my kids told me to do something about it," a justifiably busy Rowe explained to ABC magazine, recently.

"I am extremely proud of my boys [now 21 years old] who have dug in, worked hard, helped me when I needed it and been a massive supporter of what I’m trying to do – that’s pretty special," said Rowe.

"After all, all of this is their fault," he laughed.

"Because of the effect ‘the tiredest man I had ever seen’ had on me, my boys [15 at the time] challenged me to do something about it and this set in motion a complete life change for me; from the business and corporate arenas to the charity sector and bus building – and I wouldn’t change it for the world," he explained.

MUST USE MAYBE BIGGISH Bus Infographic.jpg

 

THE FLEET

The sleepbus.org bus fleet currently consists of: 1x Scania 1995 three-axle; 1x Volvo 1995 three-axle, 1x Mercedes-Benz 1992 two-axle, 1x Motorcoach 1992 two-axle, 1x PMC two-axle (as a workshop) – it drives, but not registered; 1x Mercedes-Benz 1990 two-axle as a stationary laundry bus (no engine or gearbox); and a Hino two-axle as a future medical bus to be called ‘sleepbus Health’.

"I’m not sure what bodies they are – they are sleepbus ones now," he joked.

"The workshop bus drives and we obviously use this for our workshop to keep us out of the weather," Rowe explained.

"We also get our depot for free, but the landlord may need to move us to other locations from time to time, so it was important that our set-up was mobile and we could just drive to the a new location and just keep going, so no setup required.

"The laundry bus is set up to just plug into an extension power cord and garden hose and the commercial laundry fires up! We just have to tow that if we have to move, which hasn’t happened yet."

Simon in front of bus1.jpg

THE STRUCTURE

So how many people are involved at the core of Sleepbus and what are their connections exactly, you might ask – all family members, or people from all walks of life just wanting to get involved? And what drives them as a team to make a change?

"I would say every charity starts just like we have, with family and friends around the dining table. That’s us – and family don’t complain about working for free," Rowe chuckled innocently.

"We run very lean, by design, so it’s just three of us and a graphic designer.

"I do all the work," he responded when asked about whom does the modifications and fabrication work on the buses.

"I’m 100 per cent hands on. I designed and built the prototype sleepbus and the rest we have now [by] myself, with help from two sons.

"The only fabrication work we farm out now is when the side of the bus is cut out and the sleep pod access doors are welded in," he said.

MELB Simon Saw.jpg

QBN SImon Headphones 2.jpeg

"It is just far more cost effective doing it ourselves; to have a third party build this for us [we were] quoted at $200k plus and we can do it for less than $100k," he explained.

"I was a business person and corporate consultant before doing this. I have an architectural background also, so the design part was easy enough for me," he added.

"I’m not bad on the tools and just worked the rest out as I went.

"I have zero bus mechanical/engine/running gear knowledge and rely on friendly bus company workshops for help with this, like Dom from Kastoria and Lynette from the Dineen Group – both here in Melbourne, Victoria," he stated.

"Kastoria and the Dineen Group have been the biggest supporters through this journey. They have always gone above and beyond to help me, despite my lack of knowledge. They have always taken my call. Very grateful," Rowe said.

QBN Internal Pod.jpg

Homeless Data 2019.jpg

USE PLS Pods Infographic.jpg

USE MELB Pod 1.jpeg

OCCUPANT RESPONSE

How would Rowe describe the reaction from the people who use the bus? And were they regulars from certain areas, or did Sleepbus drive around to different places and look for people who need help?

"We found during the trial of our prototype sleepbus over two years that people are very grateful for a safe, warm place to sleep for the night," he explained.

"This approach hadn’t been done anywhere in the world before, so we had to test and see if: a) it worked; and b) people used and liked it.

"Not only did we find that it worked and was well received, we also found positive side effects to the service: better physical and mental health of our guests," Rowe stated.

"Simply not having to sleep outside in the elements and worrying about your safety through the night ... it makes a huge difference," he explained.

"We try to stick to set locations, so people know where to find us. So ‘regulars’, ‘one-time users’ and ‘semi-regular’ are normal.

"We work with other charities to find out where we should be, and being a bus – not a building – we are able to go where we are needed."

IMG_3803X2.jpg

WHERE NEXT?

According to Rowe, the sleepbus.org goal for this year is to launch four sleepbuses for the areas of Melbourne, Queanbeyan, NSW; Canberra, ACT; and Maroochydore, Queensland – and the Hino ‘sleepbus health’.

"We hope with the momentum of these services and the publicity that is generated we can raise the necessary funds to build more Sleepbuses for operation in Sydney, Byron Bay (NSW), Brisbane, Gold Coast (QLD), Adelaide (SA), Perth (WA) and more in Melbourne," Rowe stated.

"What is needed for this to happen, as with all things, are the funds and suitable buses – all of which we are confident we can bring in.

"The pandemic has certainly caused tremendous financial strain on people and families, the biggest cause of homelessness, so the need is [there] and will continue to increase for some time to come.

"On the other hand, speaking for the Victorian government, every rough sleeper here has been offered hotel accommodation. Obviously this can’t last, but it has been a fantastic initiative.

"Covid permitting [Victoria was heading back into a snap lockdown as this was written] we will launch the Queanbeyan Service in March 2021; the pink sleepbus services for Canberra and Melbourne in June/July and the Maroochydore and sleepbus health services towards the end of the year.

MENTAL HEALTH INITIATIVE LAUNCHED (30).png

HURDLES AND HICCUPS

The top three challenges – global pandemics aside – that Sleepbus faces are: raising funds to build buses, finding sponsors for the services, and finding suitable buses that are of roadworthy condition and not full of rust, Rowe explained.

"I say biggest challenges because they are; however, to date we have managed this ok. We’ve had great support and, fingers crossed, this will only increase with momentum and increased awareness of the Sleepbus charity and the service it provides," he added.

"I think ‘sleepbus health’ will be a fantastic add-on initiative to Sleepbus for our guests and, going well, we will look to build additional sleepbus health vehicles for other states."

So does Rowe take pride in all he and the sleepbus team have achieved?

"I’m not sure I’m at the proud state yet; there’s still a lot to do," he answered. "I have pretty high standards and lofty goals."

Pink Bus Simon.jpeg

Telstra Awards sleepbus.jpg

SLEEPBUS.ORG MANTRA

"Sleep changes everything. Sleep plays a vital role in good health and wellbeing, and getting enough quality sleep can help protect a person’s mental health, physical health, and safety.

"For those sleeping rough, getting a good night’s sleep is near impossible and can contribute to long-term homelessness and more.

"We believe that sleep changes everything. With a good night’s sleep, we think the pathway out of homelessness will be a little easier to find."

Simon Rowe, sleepbus Founder (1).jpg

BUS ORIGINS

1. Laundry Bus – Dineen Group

2. Original prototype sleepbus and now Canberra Pink sleepbus – Dineen Group

3. Melbourne Pink sleepbus – Kastoria

4. Queanbeyan sleepbus – private individual donor

5. sleepbus health – private purchase; previously Red Cross blood-donor vehicle (from the 1980s)

6. Workshop bus – ex-Winton Raceway, ex-Bendigo Transit bus

7. Maroochydore sleepbus – Buslink Queensland

You can also follow our updates by liking us on Facebook